In this new 3-part series, Leigh Matthews at the DoGooder Podcast (also the co-founder of Rethink Orphanages), discusses with me the why and how of whether intercountry adoption does good and can it ever be ethical.
Personally I found this interview to be the most in-depth I’ve ever done on this topic. I had no pre-empting of the questions and by the end, I was a little shaken and rattled as I realised some of the content I’d spoken about wasn’t as cohesive as I’d would have liked because nobody had ever asked such intensive questions before. After all these years in speaking, I have usually refined the way I describe and answer questions because in repeatedly speaking on the topic, I get more succinct over time. This time however, my thinking/speaking is raw for a good portion of it and Leigh did a fantastic job of rattling me! She has a natural way of understanding this topic given orphanage tourism is so closely connected.
I can’t wait to hear the next two ladies in this series: Jessica Davis, American adoptive mother who returned her adopted child to her family in Uganda after discovering she had not been a true orphan nor relinquished with a clear understanding of our western legal concept of adoption. Jessica has gone on to found an organisation Kugatta to assist other adoptive families who find themselves in situations like hers. Then Laura Martinez-Mora, a lawyer and Secretary in the Hague Permanent Bureau team, responsible for the intercountry adoption portfolio who provides her professional perspective.
Our views together on this topic will help develop some much needed in-depth conversation about how intercountry adoption occurs today, whether it does more harm than good, and whether it can be ethical.
Can you imagine if a stranger came into your home and started taking selfies with your child, gave them gifts, hugged and kissed them, then left? The following day a new stranger came into your home and did this exact same thing.
This is a reality for the majority of children living in orphanages throughout the world. We don’t think twice when we see people post these types of pictures, matter of fact we often praise each other when we partake in such activities. For as long as I can remember, visiting orphanages, posing with “orphans”, loving and giving them gifts has been seen as a good and acceptable thing but I believe it’s time to reevaluate! Matter of fact, it’s long past when we should have realised how careless we can sometimes be with the safety and well-being of these children.
How is that when it’s our own children we see things so differently? When it’s our own child, no one needs to tell us the negative effects such situations could bring about, yet when it’s not our child, but a child in an orphanage, we strip them so easily of their individuality and value. The parental instincts that keep our children out of harm’s way should be extended to all children, not just those within our own home. We must work to protect ALL children equally.
While there is certainly much to be understood as to why this discrepancy in value exists that is not what this post is about.
What I would like to discuss is why volunteering in orphanages can be problematic and at times cause harm.
Most children in orphanages are not orphans. In the past, donating to and volunteering within orphanages has been seen as a good and noble thing, but with the understanding that 4 out of 5 children living within those institutions are not orphans it’s our responsibility to ensure we are not contributing to the problem. The act of visiting and volunteering in orphanages has become more and more popular over the years, and as a result there has been a direct increase in the number of orphanages across the world. The desire for donations can incite orphanages to go looking for children to fill their walls, preying on vulnerable families that are desperate for help. As a result, children are removed from families that could’ve been invested in to keep together (which is truly in the child’s best interest). Because of this, children are often being held within these institutions in order to incur ongoing donations from volunteers and religious organisations that have developed a personal relationship with that particular orphanage.
There is no such thing as a good orphanage. While i’m not saying that there aren’t orphanages being managed by good people doing their absolute best at providing a safe and nurturing environment, the institutionalisation of children has never been considered “good” for them. Children do not thrive in institutional care, even within the best of conditions. The rate of physical, emotional and sexual abuse within orphanages is high. If we know our contributions to orphanages can potentially promote the creation of orphans and we also know how harmful institutional care is to a child, then why in the world would we consider contributing to a system that is unnecessarily institutionalising children 4 out of 5 times? Just as it is for our own children, it is best for all children to stay with their biological families where possible. It would be better to support programs that focus on keeping families together or reintegrate children back to their families instead of putting that money into systems that are separating families.
Only properly vetted and trained volunteers and professionals should be working with children in institutional care. Allowing groups of improperly screened and trained volunteers to have access to vulnerable children in orphanages promotes an unsafe environment for the children.
When volunteers visit orphanages, even for a short period of time, they create a bond that will be broken once the volunteer goes home. Children that find themselves in the unfortunate position of being placed in an orphanage have been exposed to trauma. First, there is the trauma that brought about the need for assistance. This could be anything from abuse, neglect, a death in the family, poverty, mental health of a parent, loss of a job, corruption or a multitude of other reasons. Secondly, there is the deep trauma of being separated from everything and everyone they are familiar with. Losing that bond and daily connection to their family members is extremely traumatising. More often than not, orphanages become a revolving door of people coming in, bonding with children, then leaving, thus exposing children to the trauma of abandonment over and over again.
Visiting, volunteering in and donating to orphanages creates a supply and demand market which can lead to the trafficking of children. In many developing countries where the government infrastructure is weak there is often a lack of proper oversight within orphanages. Hence, it is nearly impossible to ensure the majority of these orphanages are being managed legally and ethically. In many countries where the orphanage growth has boomed over the past few years it has become an overwhelming problem to address. With over 500 unlicensed orphanages in Uganda alone, it is near impossible for one to properly donate to or volunteer within these institutions while ensuring things are being run ethically and that children aren’t being exploited in order to receive income from donations.
While I’m not saying that there is absolutely no way to volunteer safely and ethically in an orphanage, I think it’s important to humble ourselves and ensure that in our attempt to “do good” we haven’t somehow participated in a system that may be exploiting children. It can be easy to convince ourselves that if our intentions are good the results of our actions are inconsequential. Good intentions are useless if they are causing harm. For many years I unwittingly undervalued the lives of children in institutional care all in the name of goodwill. I am embarrassed for my lack of better judgement and ignorance. But recognising and admitting where I have gotten it wrong is part of becoming the change I want to see in this world.
May we all do better and be better for these children and their families.
There was an interesting post going around an adoptive family facebook group during National Adoption Awareness Month that I haven’t seen before. It got me inspired to share from the intercountry adoptee perspective what I would change IF we could.
The question was: “If you had the power to change any adoption laws, what would you change?” As you can imagine in an adoptive parent forum, many of the answers were adoptive and prospective parent centric. I did share a few of my initial thoughts, which unsurprisingly, in that group, not very popular. So let’s share my thoughts here as essentially this is the crux of what ICAV tries to do – we speak out to help policy makers and implementors think about what their processes and practices do to the child, the adoptees for whom it’s meant to be about. Some of the responses from ICAV members are incorporated as we did have quite an active discussion in our facebook group for adult intercountry adoptees.
If I could change adoption laws as an intercountry adoptee, in no particular order, I would:
make it illegal to traffic children via intercountry adoption and ensure a legal pathway for reparative & restorative justice — such as allowing us to return to our homeland and/or original family, if and when we desire;
make it illegal to rehome or return us;
make it illegal to change or falsify our original identity that includes DNA testing the relinquishing parents to confirm their parentage of us;
make it illegal to abuse us;
create a legal pathway to prosecute the agency for failing to adequately psychologically assess our parents to ensure no further harm is done via the adoptive family environment;
make it a legal requirement for all the actors who participate in the facilitation of adoption to provide lifelong post adoption supports that are free, equitable, and comprehensive, arising from a trauma informed model. It needs to be itemised what Post Adoption encompasses e.g., full search and reunion services, translation of documents, language courses, cultural activities, psychological counselling, return to homeland services, open access to our identity documents, etc.,
make it illegal to trick birth parents, to ensure they fully understand what relinquishment and adoption means;
make it illegal to adopt a child until it is proven beyond doubt that no immediate family, kin or local community can support and raise the child; this must include proof that the provision of a range of financial and social welfare supports have been offered;
create a legal pathway for orphanages, agencies, lawyers and judges to be prosecuted by birth families who are prevented access to their child, especially in situations where they change their minds;
create a legal pathway to prosecute countries who fail to give citizenship or deport intercountry adoptees; this includes removing these countries who accept or send deportees from any international convention;
make it illegal to separate twins;
centralise adoption, bring back full accountability of adoption to the State and remove the privatised model of intercountry adoption agencies to remove the conflict of interest and the blame shifting;
remove money and fees;
make it illegal for private lawyers to facilitate intercountry adoptions;
make expatriate adoptions go through the same process as intercountry adoptions in the adopting country rather than being able to by-pass the tougher requirements.
make all plenary adoptions illegal;
legalise a new form of care internationally that incorporates the concepts of simple adoption, kinship care, stewardship, permanent care, and guardianship models that provides for our care but not at our cost in identity and removal of connection to ALL kin;
create a law that allows adoptees the right to decline their adoptive parents as an adult if they wish;
create a pathway to ensure Dual citizenship for all intercountry adoptees that includes citizenship for our generational offspring, should they wish.
This is just a starting list for thinking about what laws would need creating or changing in order to protect the rights of adoptees! I haven’t even started to discuss what laws would be needed from our original family perspectives. It would be interesting to hear their perspective. One has to question the current bias of existing laws that are skewed and mainly protect the interests of the adopters instead of a balance between all three and prevent intermediaries taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of each of the triad members.
There will always be vulnerable children who need care but today’s existing Plenary adoption laws are archaic and outdated. We adoptees know from living the experience that there are many gaps and pitfalls in the current plenary adoption laws used in intercountry adoption today.
This year, one of ICAVs goals is to bring to the forefront, the voices of those who have lived the experience of being illictly adopted via intercountry adoption practices. The experience of an illegal intercountry adoption is now recognised as “existing” by many of our governments and central authorities who facilitate the adoptions. ISS-SSI even provided a Handbook on Responding to Illegal Adoptions about this in 2016, including input from some with lived experience. However, it remains a fact today, that there are barely a handful of adult intercountry adoptees who have received appropriate support and assistance, whether that be emotional, financial, legal, or governmental liaison in response to their illicit adoptions.
What about illicit intercountry adoptions that are technically “legal” but are fundamentally unethical under international or other standards like the Palermo Protocol? The powers who control and regulate intercountry adoption do little to provide useful support to those who experience it.
In 2011, my adoptive country Australia, led the way in a working group at The Hague to developing cooperative measures for the prevention of illicit practices in adoption and they remain one of the few adoptive countries to develop a “protocol” for responding to allegations of child trafficking in adoption. However, this protocol response is severly limited in that it only acts to “review the adoption documentation” and yet it is often the documentation itself, that has been falsified and difficult to ascertain without other sources of information. Even IF documentation is proven to be false, what then? In cases like the Julie Chu Taiwanese trafficking ring where legal prosecution followed, there has been little to nothing done for the Taiwanese adoptees and their first families both in the adoptive and birth country’s. Shouldn’t those impacted be provided fully funded services to help them reunite, reintegrate and reconnect if they want this at any stage of their life? Or do they each have to pursue legal action in order to ever be compensated for their losses and legal implications? And what if they don’t want legal action but still want help?
In my time at ICAV, I have witnessed the lifelong growth that occurs developmentally for adult intercountry adoptees – first we start to explore our indivual journey but as we connect to fellow adoptees and peer support networks, we become exposed to the larger picture of intercountry adoption and the world-wide practice as it occurs today. The Hague Convention for Intercountry Adoption was designed to combat illegal adoptions but despite it’s ideals, it hasn’t been able to stop them altogether nor does it ensure adequate post adoption supports – especially for this specific segment of the intercountry adoptee population. Many critics say The Hague Convention has made the problem worse by masking the illicit practices under the guise of a “legal” adoption. As the adult adoptee population ages and matures, what I observe is a huge number, enmasse, of adoptees who are becoming actively involved in exposing the many illicit adoptions that have chequered its history.
South Korean adoptees like Jane Jeong Trenka have led the way in the fight for adoptee rights due to their historical place as the first babies enmasse in modern time to be exported in the largest numbers — but more recently there are those who pave the way for adoptees of other birth countries who have been illicitly adopted. Impacted adoptees such as:
Patrick Noordoven from Brazil Baby Affair who recently won his historical outcome of legal recognition that those adopted illegally had a right to their information; in general paving a way for other Brazilian adoptees from the Brazil Baby Affair period; and also a success with the Dutch court appointing an external commission to investigate intercountry adoptions in the past from Brazil but also including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Colombia and Indonesia;
Sanne van Rossen who released her ground breaking expose The Sadness from Sri Lanka (english translation avail this year) and the accompanying media coverage by Zembla which has effectively encouraged Sri Lankan adoptees all over the world to work together; Sanne’s work also led to official recognition of the Baby Farming era by the Sri Lankan government;
Alejandro Quezada who founded Chilean Adoptees Worldwide along with other Chilean adoptees are working with the Mothers of Chile who’s children were stolen or lost to adoption. Together they have pushed for a formal investigation into the illegal adoptions from Chile;
Marcia Engel at Plan Angel and other Colombian adoptees in the group are advocating to have illegal adoptions investigated officially;
and Arun Dohle from Against Child Trafficking who has for decades exposed illegal adoptions out of India and many other countries.
What is to be the government and central authority responses to these enmasse occurrences of illicit adoption practices? For how long will they continue to ignore the voices of those impacted the most from a practical sense – helping them find their families and re-integrate back into their countries if this is their desire? How about funding the “lived experience organisation” who helps the most because they best understand the complexities? Or a “lived experience advisory group”?
I hope that by encouraging advocacy and helping to expose the voices of those who live it, we will see change – not only formally acknowledging the wrongs done, but to attempt to make ammends and provide much needed support for those forced to live it. It is one thing to acknowledge the terrible practices of the past and attempt to avoid repeating them into the future, but it is another to address the current issues and provide support for those who have lived a lifetime resulting from past practices.
Today, I present to you the story of Mariela who has lived the experience of being illegally adopted from Guatemala to Belgium. This is an example of one person’s lived experience of illicit intercountry adoption. We look forward to sharing soon our new project to bring together many more voices like Mariela’s!
We can only ever fully understand the full complexities of illicit intercountry adoptions by listening to those who live it!
Author, Julayne Lee, is an intercountry adoptee born in South Korea and raised in the USA. Being an avid reader but not specifically into poetry, I totally enjoyed Julayne’s book because I could relate to what she shares about her own journey and the wider sociopolitical experience as an intercountry adoptee. Her voice is one of the hundreds of thousands of Korean adoptees (KADs) to be exported from their country of birth via intercountry adoption.
Not My White Savior is a deeply engaging, emotional, haunting, and honest read. Julayne depicts so many angles of the intercountry adoptee experience, reflecting our life long journey of striving to make sense of our beginnings and who we are as a product of our relinquishment and adoption. I love the images created by her words. I admire that she left no stone unturned with her courage to speak out about the many not-so-wonderful aspects of the adoptee experience.
Some of my favorite pieces which I especially resonated with, was her letter to her mothers, racist hair, map of the body, and homeland securities.
For those intercountry adoptees who have died from the complex traumas experienced in their adopted lives, I salute Julayne for memorializing their names forever in such a potent way. Through her book, their lives will not be forgotten nor for nought.
She also packs heavy punches at her birth country and spares no empathy or excuse for giving up on so many of its children. Her words in pieces, such as Powerful Korea ICA – Internment Camps of Abduction are a powerful way of explaining the trauma KADs experience in processing the multiple layers of loss and relinquishment, not only from their birth families, but also their birth country. I loved the irreverence and truth captured in the Psalm for White Saviors.
Not being a KAD, as I am adopted from Vietnam, I found this book to be educational about some of the history of South Korea’s export of children which I was previously unaware of.
Overall, I totally recommend reading this collection of poetry for anyone who is open to thinking critically about intercountry adoption from the lived experience.
Are you feeling sick whilst reading about the number of twins who have been separated at birth via intercountry adoption?! It’s wonderful that SOME are managing to accidentally find each other and reunite .. but think of how many aren’t! Based on this recent article alone, it indicates 1500 sets of Chinese twins! What happens when you consider all the other countries of origin?
I am angry that these children (who grow up to be adults like me) are growing up robbed of their rights to their basic identity! The situation of twins being separated acts to highlight the gross Child’s Rights violations that intercountry adoption facilitates.
I place the blame squarely on the adoption agencies and the birth and adopting countries who are clearly not interested in the child’s rights but are doing adoptions as financial transactions. What is overtly wrong in these separations, are that adoptive parents are reportedly not even being asked if they want to adopt twins, nor are they being told the child is a twin! So they inevitably become complicit in the systemic child’s rights violations that occur for intercountry adoptees who are twins.
When will this stop? When will adoption agencies and countries who are a signatory to the Hague Convention on intercountry adoption, ever start to listen to what adult intercountry adoptees think of such practices and make appropriate changes?!
As you can read in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which every country has ratified except for the USA, it is against our fundamental right to split twins up from birth and remove all traces of our identity. Not only are we separated and not told, but agencies make no efforts to followup and enable the re-establishment of a twin’s identity even if they found out later a child had been a twin. Knowing as I do, how important biological ties mean to us intercountry adoptees, I call it an outright crime that agencies and governments do little to remedy this situation. After 60 plus years of modern intercountry adoption worldwide, we should not still be agreeing to “twins” being separated at birth without even notifying an adoptive family that the child is actually a twin or giving them this knowledge and choice.
The leader of the world, the United States of America has not yet ratified the UNCRC! Would it be too much to expect that the world’s leading superpower who happens to trade (yes import AND export) the greatest number of children via intercountry adoption, actually follow through and enable these same children to retain their family relations via intercountry adoption?
Here’s a link to the UNCRC and note for intercountry adoption situations, relevant articles are 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 (directly relevant for deportation cases); 12 (for adoptees who are older), 20, 21, 25 (note the lack of this followup in intercountry adoption cases as post placement report is not sufficient), 30, 34 (for those who end up sexually abused in their adoptive families), 35 (for how we are sourced).
For twins, Article 8 is most relevant to what I raise awareness to in this blog.
1. States Parties undertake to respect the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations as recognized by law without unlawful interference.
2. Where a child is illegally deprived of some or all of the elements of his or her identity, States Parties shall provide appropriate assistance and protection, with a view to re-establishing speedily his or her identity.